Tradition and Modernization: Kutiyattam – Kalamandalam Sivan Namboothiri

Kalamandalam Sivan Nambutiri, a senior Koodiyattam performer, he holds the distinction of being the first disciple of Kamandalam Kalari for Koodiyattam and also the first individual from a non-Chakyar family to enter the field. He is an acclaimed guru and performer, recognized for his significant contributions in catalyzing changes in the realm of Koodiyattam.

Excerpts from the interview:

What were the changes that came about in the world of collective performances in the past few years? How have these changes affected the individuality of art as it continues in the current circumstances? Or have these changes contributed to a more beautiful evolution of the art form?

My entry into the world of Koodiyattam marked the beginning of a significant transformation in the realm of Kutiyattam. When Koodiyattam was introduced for training at Kalamandalam, I was selected as one of the two disciples, and I came from a community different from the ‘Chakyars.’ My Guru, Painkulam Ramachakyar, worked tirelessly to popularize Kutiyattam in various ways, extending it beyond a single community. Under his leadership, Kutiyattam stepped out of the temple and reached a wider audience. My entry into Koodiyattam happened by accident as I initially went to Kalamandalam to join Kathakali but was selected for Koodiyattam. Until then, I knew very little about Kutiyattam, which indicated that the art form was not widely popular at that time.

In those days, Kathakali Kalaris were well-established at Kalamandalam, and the ‘Ashans’ from Kathakali helped our small Kalari tremendously. They provided us with training in ‘Chavitti uzhichil’ and other aspects, and Ramankutt Ashan played a significant role in my training. They assisted in making our bodies flexible and perfecting our ‘Thalam,’ among other things. These changes were all beneficial. Rama Chakyar Ashan supported and stood by me, especially when people made fun of me because I was a Nambutiri. Due to my background, I was not allowed to perform in temple ‘Koothambalams.’ This situation still persists today, but Chakyar Ashan included me in his regular performances at the ‘Venganallur temple.’

In terms of repertoire and training patterns, there haven’t been many changes. The main plays include ‘Soorpanakangam,’ ‘Subhadradhananjayam,’ ‘Thoranayuddam,’ and ‘Balivadham.’ Another notable change was introduced by P.K. Narayanan Nambiar Ashan, who codified the ‘Cholliyattam.’ He would sit facing the performer and play the Mizhavu during practice, enabling him to synchronize the beats with the performer’s mudras and abhinaya. This helped achieve better coordination between ‘vadyam’ and abhinayam. Achunni Poduval was also a part of our Kalari during the same period, and some alterations and beautification in the costumes were influenced by Kathakali Kalari.

In the past, Koodiyattam gurus discouraged youngsters from watching Kathakali, possibly fearing that the two art forms might mix. However, our Ashan allowed us to watch Kathakali Cholliyattam, and this exposure influenced us positively in terms of handlings of mudras and the strength in our steps. I view this as a positive change in Koodiyattam.

A new choreography that emerged was ‘Bhagavaddajukeeyam,’ featuring Vidooshaka Shlokam. Another necessity of the time was editing the plays to suit the multicultural venues when we performed outside Kerala and abroad. These changes were necessary for these venues. These were the primary transformations that occurred in Koodiyattam. Furthermore, my Ashan and I were focused on popularizing the art form.

What were the new changes that occurred as your contributions in this art? Similarly, what is still continuing without any changes, and what you feel to be changed for the sake of the contemporary time?

I was an individual who actively sought change, and the changes I introduced eventually became part of the Kalamandalam style. As I mentioned earlier, Kathakali had a significant influence in codifying various aspects of Koodiyattam. Additionally, I always watch and appreciate other art forms equally, which helps us enhance our aesthetic knowledge. However, I consistently paid attention to preserving the identity of the art form.

One principle I always emphasized was that ‘Kottu’ and ‘Kriyas’ should complement each other. When a new or young Mizhavu artist joined, we achieved this coordination through synchronized practice. This was the hallmark of my popular sequences, such as ‘Kailasodharanam.’ The new choreographies I introduced included ‘Bhagavaddujakeeyam,’ ‘Sreerama Pattabhishekam,’ and later ‘Shakuntalam.’ In these endeavors, I adhered to the traditional pattern. While working on the Shakuntalam choreographies, I also received short-term training from ‘Maani Madhava Chakyar,’ where I learned the ‘Angams,’ but he allowed me to retain my own style.

Simultaneously, I made certain changes by eliminating aspects I deemed unnecessary. For example, I removed the practice of tying a red cloth band on the head, as I couldn’t find any meaningful or ritualistic connection to it. It might have been a tradition to keep the hair tidy in the past, but today, it is no longer required, so I eliminated it. I even removed my ‘Poonool’ (the sacred thread Nambutiris wear across their bodies) after recognizing that Koodiyattam is my profession and life.

Certain changes were also made in response to venue demands. For instance, we received an invitation to present Koodiyattam for 25 minutes to a UNESCO team. In such situations, we couldn’t insist on not reducing the performance time. Today, I believe that the approach to the art form should evolve. Koodiyattam involves the collaboration of many artists, and coordination is vital. We should set aside our egos and work for the betterment of the art form, providing opportunities for others as well.

How is the Rasika community today? Are they seeking for changes or still want the old tradition? To what extent have you considered audience taste?

Special demands from the audience have been quite rare. I have always followed my own path of innovation. Some individuals have criticized me to my face, saying that I am resembling ‘Kathakali,’ but no Kathakali artist has ever expressed such an opinion. I have never been bothered by such arguments. I have always been a keen observer of various art forms while striving to maintain the unique identity of Koodiyattam. I have also made efforts to introduce improvisations at every stage, even when performing the same roles. This has been recognized as my distinctive style, often compared to ‘Gopi Ashan’ in Kathakali. However, innovations are still not as widely accepted in Koodiyattam as they are in Kathakali, and I have always questioned this trend.

Today, Nangyar Koothu has plenty of stages and opportunities, but do men’s solo performances receive as much attention as they should? What is the reason for this?

That’s correct. I believe the lack of freedom is the main reason. In Koothu, variety is essential. Senior-generation artists like my Ashan and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar Ashan had expertise in both ‘vaakk’ and Abhinayam.’ However, not everyone can excel in both. I slightly distanced myself from Koothu due to the audience’s response, as they would mockingly refer to it as ‘Namboorikoothu.’ So I focused on plays instead. Today, there are talented young artists who excel in ‘Koothu parachil.’ However, perhaps due to the repetition of stories, it doesn’t gain the same recognition as Nangiarkoothu. Nonetheless, there are many innovations and new choreographies happening in Nangiarkoothu. I also made an attempt at Kalamandalam Koothambalam, and it was well-received. I don’t believe it cannot be performed by male artists.

Different styles exist in Koodiyattam. Will these eventually evolve into a unified presentation style? What do you think?

There is no need for it to become a unified style. Ammanoor Kalari follows the traditional style. It was individuals like Rama Chakyar Ashan who operated with more changes. ‘Maani Madhava Chakyar’ was an expert in his abhinaya. I had the fortune to be with these three legends. But they never insisted to follow their style. As I mentioned earlier I got trained under ‘Maani Madhava Chakyar’ for Shakuntalam’, then I had an opportunity to share a stage with ‘Ammannur ashan’. My Arjuna vesham and Ashan’s Vidooshakan. He also allowed me to follow my style, and did not show any hesitancy as he is a Chakyar and I am a Nabutiri. I have also performed with artistes from ‘Marggi’. So I don’t think there is a need to unify everything. Each style can exist as it is.  

You are someone who appreciates all art forms and has shown courage in bringing changes to a highly traditional art form like Koodiyattam. Besides your Guru, who else have been a significant source of inspiration for you?

My Gurunathan was my most significant influence. He was someone who embraced change and worked tirelessly to popularize the art form, which is the same path I followed. Another source of influence came from the Kalamandalam Kathakali Kalari. The strict ‘Kalari chitta’ of Ramankutti Ashan and the Abhinaya skills of Kunju Nair Ashan had a profound impact on me. Although I never attempted to blend the styles, Koodiyattam artists such as Mani Madhava Chakyar and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar also had an influence on me.

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